My Thoughts on Technology and Jamaica: Prof Donald Sadoway and the Liquid Metal Battery - VC Bill Gates Evanessence

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Prof Donald Sadoway and the Liquid Metal Battery - VC Bill Gates Evanessence

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The idea of Battery Storage to provide On-Demand Power for PUC (Power Utility Companies) that can deliver a quick burst of current has evaded even the best of scientific minds.

At least, until Material Chemistry Professor Donald Sadoway of (MIT) Massachusetts Institute of Technology, put his past experience in Industrial Aluminum Smelting to design a Battery that is nothing short of a breakthrough.

It is also a potential Game changer not only for the PUC Industry, but possibly for Consumer Electronics as well! This as it holds the potential to achieve the Holy Grail of Consumer Electronics: Battery Power measured in days, not hours!

This is in the murky field of Electrochemistry thus solving a problem that typically bedevils most batteries: the Electrode being consumed in the electrochemical process and instantaneous Electricity discharge at a low cost.

His design for a Battery Storage system, called a Liquid Metal Battery, as stated in the article “Bill Gates Backs Liquid Metal Battery”, published May 20, 2011, 7:45am PT By Katie Fehrenbacher, GigaOM and the article “Liquid Metal Battery snags funding from Gates firm”, published May 20, 2011, CNET News - Green Tech, is novel.

And he has considerable funding:

  1. A US$6.9 million grant from the DOE (Department of Energy) ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy) in 2009AD
  2. US$ $4 million grant from oil company Total

Microsoft CEO Bill Gates is now also an investor after having taken sight of a Solid-State Chemistry Lecture series by Professor Donald Sadoway on MIT’s Website. Apparently, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates does night classes in Chemistry or possibly realizes the uniqueness of Professor Donald Sadoway’s ideas!

Rather than use solid conductive Electrodes for the Anode and Cathode of the Battery that would normally be consumed in the process of producing Electricity, he is instead using layers of immiscible Molten Liquid Anode and Cathode floating above and below a Molten Liquid Electrolyte to make a cell.

By no means is a new concept, as some Battery Storage technology use Molten Liquid Anode and Cathode as President and Co-Founder Luis Ortiz was quick to point out. The process for producing Chlorine uses a flowing Mercury Cathode is one such example that readily comes to mind as stated in the book Chemistry for CXC, Norman Lambert and Marine Mohammed, Heinemann International Literature and Textbooks, published 1993, Ch. 19, pg. 209, ISBN: 0435-98311-3.

Professor Donald Sadoway design, in part, draws inspiration from Electrochemistry used in Aluminum Smelting, as Professor Donald Sadoway states, quote: “I looked at how aluminum smelters take a giant hall with liquid aluminum and fill it and I said, ‘That's where you can get economy of scale. If you want a big Battery, you build one big Battery and you can't do that with today's technology. The scalability is going to be enabled by borrowing the lessons of 125 years of aluminum smelting.’”

Quite true!

Cell? Battery? Immiscible? Electrodes?

Welcome the zany world of Electrochemistry and Battery Technology!

Yes people, Electrochemistry is where Electronics and Chemistry collide as it relates directly to Battery design for everything from Apple iPads to Netbooks that the Apple iPad is killing off.

Quick Note:

  1. A Battery is made of Cells that consist of Anodes (+ve) and Cathode (-ve) connected in series. Electrodes are connected to the Battery to provide connection to devices that utilize the Battery and typically are made of copper alloy, gold or constantan (Aluminum steel alloy).
  2. The Electrolyte, which may be solid of liquid, makes contact with the Anode and Cathode of each cell and effectively stores the Potential Energy in the form of Chemical Energy that converts to Electrical Energy on contact with the Electrodes.
  3. This conversion is based on the position of the Electrodes in the Electrochemical Series, which is based on the Electro-positivity of the Electrode material willingness to give up Electrons in its outermost Orbital of Electrons in its constituent atoms, as some Electrodes are actually compounds or even alloys. The more Electro-positive material is always the Cathode.
  4. In most batteries, the Electrodes are eventually used up in the reaction, at which point the Battery’s ability to produce power stops.
  5. Rechargeable Batteries can be recharged by connecting DC (Direct Current) in Reverse Polarity

My article “Apple iPad, PC Makers and Battery Life - Lost in Space and The AppleByte” is an indication of how the Apple iPad and even the Apple MacBook Air Pro stellar Battery Life is influencing PC Design as customers demand Electronics gadgets with longer Battery life.

Two (2) to five (5) hours Battery life just won’t cut it any more. People want Battery life of ten (10) hours or the entire week (ideal) so that they don’t have to be tethered to their power brick.

Several competing technologies, such as DMFC (Direct Methanol Fuel Cells) hold the promise of making Fuel Cell Technology, the current front runner in Battery Design, affordable to the masses as stated in my blog article entitled “Chrome OS Cr-48 and the Mobion Fuel Cell Generator - Green Lantern”.

This breakthrough, however, of a Liquid Metal Battery, relates more to PUC (Power Utility Companies) and their ability to store and release Electricity on Demand during Peak Power Demand.

This usually coincides with when people return home and switch on their appliances or plug in their All-Electric Vehicle and thereby incur a huge demand on Electricity from the PUC’s Grid.

Different Potential Energy Storage Technologies, such as Flywheel Storage, Large Scale Battery Storage or even Hydroelectric Energy from water flowing down from a Reservoir on a high Elevation are employed

But Battery Storage is the most heavily pursued, as it is more efficient, being as the Stored Potential Energy is already in the form of Electricity. The Electricity is already in the usable form; it just needs to be regulated and converted from DC (Direct Current) to AC (Alternating Current).

Thus most ongoing research is in this field, as the other field requires conversion of Potential Energy from one form to another before it becomes Electricity, with Energy being lost at various stages of the conversion.

Despite the complexities of Professor Donald Sadoway’s design for his Liquid Metal Battery, it’s elegantly simple and is no different from a Lead Acid Car Battery.

It mainly differs by virtue of the fact that unlike the Car Battery, which has solid Lead (Pb) and Lead Oxide (PbO) as the Anode and Cathode respectively, the Anode and Cathode are Liquid.

The name WAS a very big clue, I hope!

On to the design description then lads!!

Imagine a gigantic ringed Bathtub made of three (3) Metal strips melded together to form the Bathtub. Between the two upper and lower Metal strips, however, you would have an insulator material.

Then imagine the Bathtub being filed first with the liquid in contact with the bottom metallic strip. That liquid would be the first Liquid Metal Anode. It is filled so that it goes a little above the line that denotes the joining of the Metal that makes up the Anode and the Insulator material that makes up the central strip that forms the body of the Bathtub.

Next, the electrolyte is poured in and interfaces with the strip that makes up the Bathtub that is insulating. The Bathtub is filled just below the mark line that denotes the joining of the Insulator material and the Metal that makes up the Anode and that makes up the central strip that forms the body of the Bathtub.

Finally, the Third liquid poured in would be the Liquid Metal Cathode. It fills up the remaining volume in contact with the Metal that makes up the Cathode.

Currently Professor Donald Sadoway is at the prototype stage, with a size no larger than a box of pizza.

But when he eventually scales up the Liquid Metal Battery to Industrial-scale, based on my knowledge of Inorganic Chemistry, it may involve the following materials as follows:

  1. The three (3) liquids, namely the Liquid Metal Cathode, the Electrolyte and the Liquid Metal Anode are immiscible i.e. do not dissolve into each other due to different densities and specific gravities.
  2. The Liquid Metal Cathode is molten Magnesium (Mg) (1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2), as it is more easily give up Electrons i.e. Electro-negative
  3. Electrolyte is a Molten Salt, most likely Sodium Chloride (NaCl), or ordinary Table Salt
  4. The Liquid Metal Anode is molten Antimony (Sb) (1s2 2s2 2p6 3s2 3p6 4s2 3d10 4p6 5s2 4d10 3p3), as it has unfilled outer Orbitals
  5. Liquid Metal Cathode is molten Magnesium (Mg) and is at the top of the Bathtub due to its lower density and specific gravity.
  6. Liquid Metal Anode is molten Antimony (Sb) and is at the bottom of the Bathtub due to its higher density and specific gravity.
  7. The Metallic portions of the Bathtub that make contact with the Liquid Metal Anode and the Liquid Metal Cathode may be made of High Temperature Aluminium Steel Alloy
  8. The Central non-Conductive strip may be made of pre-stressed Concrete
  9. The Operating Temperature of the Liquid Metal Battery will be very high, approximately 800 Degrees Celsius, as the metals have to be kept in a Liquid State.

The Upper and Lower most part of the Chamber act as the point contact with the Upper and Lower Liquids, which form the Anode (+ve) and Cathode (-ve). The Molten Liquid Electrolyte acts in much the same way as the Electrolyte in a Lead Acid Battery.

So how does it work? Not much different from the Bloom Energy Server as described in my blog article entitled “The Secret of the Bloom Energy Server unraveled – and can be locally Reverse Engineered”.

Now for the charging cycle!

Electricity from the PUC is converted by a Rectifier Network and used to charge the Batteries, with electron flow from the Liquid Metal Cathode to the Liquid Metal Anode being facilitated by the Liquid Electrolyte which provides Ions.

During this charging process, Molten Metal Ions cross from the Liquid Metal Anode to the Liquid Electrolyte via the Molten Liquid Electrolyte – Liquid Metal Interface and produce salts of the Metal from the Molten Liquid Sodium Chloride (NaCl).

For this reason, the denser Liquid Metal Anode is Antimony (Sb), as it more easily gains its Electrons in its unfilled and unpaired Metal Atom Orbitals and exists as Molten Liquid Metal Ions at such high temperatures.

The ionized Molten Liquid Antimony (Sb) forms a metallic complex with the ionized Chloride (Cl) that makes up the Molten Liquid Electrolyte Sodium Chloride (NaCl), effectively an Antimony Chloride (SbCl) complex.

Meanwhile the ionized Molten Liquid Magnesium (Mg) Cathode forms a metallic complex with the ionized Sodium (Na) that makes up the Molten Liquid Electrolyte Sodium Chloride (NaCl), effectively a Magnesium Sodium (MgNa) complex.

Due to the liquid nature of the Battery, this transfer of Electricity occurs very quickly via Ions, which are very mobile within the Molten Liquid Electrolyte Sodium Chloride (NaCl).

Also, the Molten Liquid Electrolyte Sodium Chloride (NaCl) becomes thinner as the complexes of Antimony Chloride (SbCl) and Magnesium Sodium (MgNa) build up at the Upper and Lower Molten Liquid Electrolyte Interface. The Molten Liquid Antimony (Sb) and the Molten Liquid Magnesium (Mg) also become thinner.

Now for discharging!

Under this scenario, the Cathode begins to act as the Negative Terminal with the Anode acting as the Positive Terminal. The released DC Power goes through an Inverter and on to the PUC, who then regulate the Power before putting it on their Grid!!

The Ion complexes formed revert back to their original state with the Molten Liquid Antimony (Sb) and the Molten Liquid Magnesium (Mg) going back to their ionized state acting as carriers of Electrons to the Electrodes that make up the Bathtub.

Curiously, the Molten Liquid Electrolyte Interface gets thicker and the Molten Liquid Antimony (Sb) Anode and the Molten Liquid Magnesium (Mg) Cathode become thicker, being as this is the reverse process. Also, the production of Electricity as any battery discharges is exothermic i.e. releases heat (think of your Laptop!!).

It thus it produces copious amounts of Heat. A Heat exchanger can be used to capture this waste heat to due useful work and even be used to maintain the temperature of the Molten Liquid Electrolyte Interface Antimony (Sb) Anode and the Molten Liquid Magnesium (Mg) Cathode.

Again thanks to the high mobility of the Ions, the discharge is quick and fast, a necessary requirement and expected parameter of any Battery Storage Technology to provide On-Demand Peak Power on Tap, so that there is no failure of the PUC Grid.

This is the promise of such a unique take on Energy Storage and hence the endorsement by Microsoft CEO Bill Gates.

But of greater interest to me is the potential such a Battery Technology may have for computers. Research could improve the Insulators and developed Liquid Electrolyte, Liquid Anode and Cathode that can operate at Room Temperature.

Then Professor Donald Sadoway and President and Co-Founder Luis Ortiz could go commercial, and develop Battery Technology that could power Computers and Laptops.

As far fetched as my prediction may seem, Consumer Electronics is a possible Event Horizon (1997) for this Technology, in much the same way that DMFC can possibly be scaled up to power PC’s and Laptops as stated in my blog article entitled “Chrome OS Cr-48 and the Mobion Fuel Cell Generator - Green Lantern”.

This as the typical person using a PC or Laptop (assuming they are not made extinct by the Tablet PC!!) sit in one location and does not move about as is the case with a Tablet.

The race is now on to develop the Eternal Battery and the Liquid Metal Battery may be a new entrant in this long ignored field of electronics as noted in my blog article entitled “Apple iPad and the House of Representatives - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”.

Battery Power measured in days, not hours is within the grasp of Research and Development Team led by Professor Donald Sadoway and President and Co-Founder Luis Ortiz!

All that is needed is Money and Time, both of which Microsoft CEO Bill Gates has aplenty to Bring Me to Life, Evanescence Style!

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